Celebrating 30 years of great TV with a 'Twist'

It's finally fall - always a good time to snuggle down with a Charles Dickens novel. And PBS's signature series, "Masterpiece Theatre," bolts into its 30th season with a splendid interpretation of Dickens's classic tale of innocence and poverty, Oliver Twist (Oct. 8, 15, and 22, 9-11 p.m.).

It is a story about child abuse and the wicked way poverty can lead to crime. When Dickens wrote his novel, he did so out of fury toward the so-called "poor laws," which oppressed the poor nearly to starvation. Particularly wretched were the orphans - so Dickens made his hero an incorruptible innocent.

In this elaborate retelling, English playwright Alan Bleasdale has filled in the angelic Oliver's back story - how his sweet upper-class, unwed mother came to bear him in a horrific workhouse. And it's a good thing because this was only Dickens's second novel, written for a magazine in serialized form (a version that leaves more than a few threads unstrung).

Basing the back story on a few pages Dickens wrote near the end of the novel, Mr. Bleasdale shows us why the mysterious Monks (Oliver's half brother, played by Marc Warren) is such a disturbed character.

He gives us a truly arch villain in Monks's evil mother, Elizabeth (the distinguished Lindsay Duncan). We learn who Oliver's weak father was, and how the philanthropist Mr. Brownlow (Michael Kitchen is superb in the role) fits into Oliver's destiny.

In Bleasdale's hands, minor characters have a complicated humanity that requires our compassion. Even Monks is a tortured soul crying out for redemption.

The murderous Bill Sikes (Andy Serkis), too, is deeply anguished. Mr. Brownlow has a bit of a temper. Dickens's expression of anti-Semitism, for which he later apologized, is mitigated by many factors in this version.

Bleasdale makes the king of thieves, Fagin (Robert Lindsay), a magician - a kind of Pied Piper who lures street children into his pickpockets' den. His charm and pathos are undeniable - it's clear that his fate is unjust, as Oliver points out.

"This [version] is a real palette cleanser," says producer Rebecca Eaton, comparing it to previous versions, especially the musical. "It makes serious social commentary."

Social commentary also illumines Cora Unashamed (Oct. 25, 9-11 p.m.). It's part of "Masterpiece Theatre's" new series of specials - "The American Collection" - that will air nine series over three years. The last time "Masterpiece Theatre" produced a spinoff series, Ms. Eaton says, was 21 years ago, when it begot "Mystery!"

Just as "Masterpiece Theatre" puts English classics on the small screen, "The American Collection" will adapt American classics for TV. "Cora Unashamed" is based on a story by Langston Hughes and will represent "very much of a departure," Eaton says.

"It's a tough story ... about forgiveness and redemption.... We have a rich vein in American literature which has either been untapped or given the Hollywood treatment - not true to the literature."

Background material and teacher's guides will be sent to 200,000 teachers, and a Web site at www.pbs.org will provide more background, she says. "The American," by Henry James, and Esmeralda Santiago's "Almost a Woman" make up the next two shows in this inaugural season. Future seasons will offer works by Eudora Welty, Willa Cather, and James Agee.

"To paraphrase Dickens," Eaton says, "It is the best of times, it is the better of times" for "Masterpiece Theatre."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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